Better Luck Tomorrow

Justin Lin is trying to shatter the stereotype of Asian-Americans as being the model minority. There is more to them than the high school nerds or kung-fu master roles usually relegated to them. He's not trying to say that they aren't like this, or that they are the extreme in the opposite direction, he's just trying to say that they can be just like everybody else. And he is carving out an identity for Asian-Americans in potential future movies. There have been a few like The Debut and The Flip Side, which deal more with the idea of cultural identity, whereas Better Luck Tomorrow deals with being normal teenagers. While there have been many Asians who have attained success in American movies, the number of Asian-Americans who have had similar success is much lower. It is even truer for Asian-American directors, and the much-hyped Lin (Shopping For Fangs) makes an audacious debut with Better Luck Tomorrow.

Part of the success is due to the fact that Lin and co-writers Ernesto Foronda (The Favor) and Fabian Marquez mine familiar themes of adolescent angst, this time wrapping it in a different color. The characters here live in Orange County, CA, described as dull and mundane, with nothing much going on and endless rows of tract housing. They get good grades and are ready to go to college, but they are bored. It is this boredom that leads them on a downward spiral. They begin with small scams and cheat sheets for exams, then graduate to larger things like theft and selling drugs. All this is possible because they can get away with it. Although there are many scenes with the characters at home, there is never a parent on camera. They use their good grades to get away with things that aren't so good.

The movie is a flashback told by Ben Manibag (Parry Shen, The New Guy, Starship Troopers), about his exploits with boyhood friend Virgil (James Tobin, The Party Crashers, Yellow), Virgil's cousin Han (Sung Kang, Antwone Fisher, Pearl Harbor) and Daric (Roger Fan, Corky Romano, Blue Haven). Of the four, Ben is the most sensible. He is doing this stuff because it brings a sense of excitement to his life, and because he feels in control. He is also the emotional core of the film because he is the only one who seems to have a working conscience. One of the few things Ben doesn't have control of is his desire to be with Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung). She is his lab partner, and is going out with Steve (John Cho, Solaris, Big Fat Liar). So Ben instantly takes a disliking to Steve, who seems a little too slick for his own good.

Better Luck Tomorrow is essentially an indie movie with some more money than usual. It has a bare bones feel to it, and looks a little less polished than most movies. Rather than hindering things, this gives the film a more realistic feel. Things begin really slowly, done to show how dull life can get for Ben and his friends. However, once things begin moving, they move quickly. Here is where Lin shows some of his strengths and weaknesses. The script could use some more work. The dialogue feels clumsy at times, and Virgil, Han, and Daric are thin on any meaningful personality. However, other things are able to hide some of the shortcomings of the script. The pacing becomes frenetic, and Lin uses now standard things like rapid-fire editing to convey this. He has a good eye for visuals and a flair for stylistic touches (even if some were used by people like Kevin Smith nearly a decade ago).

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 41 minutes, Rated R for violence, drug use, language, and sexuality.

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